By Catherine Kozak on May 23, 2012
Jessica Harrell was furious when her cousin James Eric Presson tried to forcefully stop her from participating in a wet T-shirt contest, and she complained tearfully to her guy friends about his rough treatment.
Little did Harrell know that her angry remarks would lead to a series of events ending in the stabbing death of her friend Brandon A. Presgraves and a murder charge against the son of her mother’s twin sister.
On Wednesday, Harrell sat in Dare County Superior Court and listened to four of her friends describe, one at a time, the escalating conflict that led up to Presson killing Presgraves early that morning. On several occasions, she dabbed away welling tears.
Ashleigh Hart of Kill Devil Hills,testified that she was outside smoking a cigarette in front of the Port O’ Call Restaurant and Gaslight Saloon in Kill Devil Hills, where she and a group of friends had gathered, when she saw Presson confronting Harrell about her plans to enter the wet T-shirt contest. She said Presson had his hands on her and pushed her, and they were arguing.
“The best way I can describe it is he was manhandling her,” Hart told the court. “She was very upset and she was crying.”
Harrell then went inside and told her friends, including Presgraves, about the encounter.
“Brandon was upset because you don’t handle a female like that,” Hart testified.
When Harrell, a slight woman with curly blond hair, took the stand, she said she had told at least one friend that Eric was “beating” her, but under questioning from defense attorney Kris Felthousen, she described Presson as “having his hands on me.”
“I was telling him, ‘You’re not my dad. Let me do what I want to do,’ ” she testified. “I was embarrassed.”
Harrell, who was then two months short of age 21, went back inside and joined the contest, which involves putting on a shirt provided by the bar, climbing into a kiddy pool on the stage, and having water dumped over the shirt by bar staff.
Testimony from Hart and three men in the group, who all admit to drinking, describe similar versions of what happened next: Presson stayed outside, talking on his phone. Five of the male friends went over to Presson and angrily called him names.
Presgraves went outside separately to confront Presson about the incident with Harrell. Punches were thrown, and Presgraves was hit in the head. Soon after, Presson started walking north on the Beach Road. Presgraves, his shirt in his hand, also started walking, and his friends assumed that he was heading to his home on 5th Street, despite the pouring rain.
In a recording of an interview played in court, Presson could be heard telling police in detail how Presgraves had pursued him up the Beach Road, ran up behind him and swung a large object at his head. Presson said he then pulled his chef’s knife from his bag to defend himself.
The object that Presgraves allegedly used has not been found.
At the request of Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Karpowicz, photographs of different areas of Presson’s body were reviewed by Kill Devil Hills Police Det. Kevin Moye. The only visible injury he saw, Moye said, was on Presson’s right knuckle and some red marks on his arms. Moye also said he could not find any injuries on the defendant’s head, where Presson said he was grazed by the object Presgraves had swung at him.
Karpowicz said that the coroner and a bouncer from Port O’ Call are expected to testify on Thursday.